“There is something in the mountain air that feeds the spirit and inspires.” — Henry David Thoreau from his essay, “Walking,” 1862
Once again, after a long hiatus due to the complications of modern life, I had the privilege of traveling into nature’s cathedral, unwinding from the relentless demands of daily life, and drifting into the comfort of the forest womb; the embrace with the natural world, far from every routine concern, reminded me of my mother’s embrace–comforting, consoling, warm and loving–and after a time, I began to sense the rise of my battered spirit. As the serenity and stillness of the wilderness area overtook the relentless sense of chaos, and gradually lessened the normal need for the sustained efforts to keep it at bay, the flow of thoughts and waves of expression rose and fell within me, much to my delight. Although it is not without effort, I generally allow the flow to guide me, and willingly follow my natural inclinations to indulge in expressing whatever arises within me without prejudice or conscious inhibition as the surges appear and recede.
“We would fain take that walk, never yet taken by us through this actual world, which is perfectly symbolical of the path which we love to travel in the interior and ideal world; and sometimes, no doubt, we find it difficult to choose our direction, because it does not yet exist distinctly in our idea.” — Henry David Thoreau from his essay, “Walking,” 1862
This recent journey through the woods and mountains has allowed me time to dwell in silence and solitude in what Emerson described as “the plantations of God,” and afforded me both the time and the opportunity to break through to my inner world once again. Of particular note are a number of photographs like those on this page, deliberately composed and refined as illustrations of both my writing efforts and as testimony to the scope and depth of beauty available to the discerning eye. In ways I have not previously attempted, this year I gave some advanced thought to the composition and creation of the images, conjuring in my mind beforehand what might best suggest the thoughts I was recording throughout my stay in the wilderness area, providing me with a more focused attention to specific ideas which I envisioned, based on what I was recording directly from the flow within.
“There is, in fact, a sort of harmony discoverable between the capabilities of the landscape within a circle of ten miles radius, or the limits of an afternoon walk, and the threescore years and ten of human life.” — Henry David Thoreau from his essay, “Walking,” 1862
There’s something about “what it’s like” to wake up in the deep woods in the Alleghany Mountains that is very much “unlike” waking up in my bedroom at home. Although I generally find myself reasonably content to be waking up at all, there is a unique pleasure that accompanies the early morning hours under the forest canopy in the mountains that has always seemed to lift my spirits and ease the burdens I generally carry in a way that few other experiences seem to accomplish. The subtle sounds of nature and the stillness that permeates the very air you breathe are uncommonly soothing to the human spirit, and, for me, these signals tell me I am far removed from the daily routines of ordinary or everyday life, and that I have crossed over into “wilderness mode.”
It is, of course, not totally wild nor completely isolated from civilization per Se, since I am conducting the morning coffee ritual in a state park in western Maryland near the border of West Virginia, but I am surrounded by a natural forest landscape, complete with a host of forest creatures, abundant trees and plants, and only a few concessions to human comfort in order to allow myself to enjoy both the familiar and the extraordinary aspects of being alive and away from home.
With only a minimal nod to 21st century technology in typing these words on my laptop computer, which lends itself more readily to the constant editing I need to do, and capturing a variety of the moments of the abundant pleasures available to forest visitors with a digital camera, most every other aspect of my day requires a more human type of intervention. Everything I eat is prepared on either a camp stove or propane grill, coffee is brewed in a small percolator pot, and all perishable items are kept in coolers with ice to prevent spoiling.
It’s not Robinson Caruso or Henry Thoreau’s cabin in the woods, but it is sufficiently removed from the everyday world to allow me to focus my attention more easily on my inner experience and to engage in contemplation without the usual barrage of interruptions and distractions. Sitting here sipping my coffee, while I look out into the ocean of trees and greenery that surrounds me, is an ideal way to start any day by my reckoning, and the pervasive near-silence of the natural surroundings feels much more like total silence than any typical everyday experience.
It is particularly noticeable when I set myself to reading or writing by hand, which I still continue to do as the spirit moves me, that I am able to fully lose myself in the task in a way that normally happens only sporadically in my office at home. Removing every normal distraction and simply engaging myself in attending to these activities sometimes makes it seem like I am the only living creature on the planet in those moments. It’s not something I would wish for at length, and I also enjoy commiserating with my fellow camping enthusiasts as the opportunity presents itself, but I must admit that it is one of the most enjoyable aspects of the camping experience to disconnect entirely from the rest of humanity for a short time, and to simply commune with my own thoughts and to be with myself, even for just a while
“I took a walk…the other afternoon. I saw the setting sun lighting up the opposite of a stately pine wood. Its golden rays struggled in to the aisles of wood as into some noble hall.” — Henry David Thoreau from his essay, “Walking,” 1862
Occasionally, when I tell others about my experiences while camping, they seem to want to enumerate all the disadvantages of vacationing in the silence and solitude, not to mention sharing the experience with all the creatures of the natural environment. There are a number of concessions, precautions, and extra steps to maintain a reasonable degree of comfort while participating in life in the woods, but none of them seem especially daunting to me, especially considering the benefits which accompany the experience. Observing a modest regimen of caution and attention to safety and avoiding encounters with unwelcome forest visitors does require some effort and preparation, but having been a camping enthusiast for more than twenty years has given me a fair idea of what to do in this regard. There’s no better way to learn about these issues than to encounter them in the wild, and here are some of the main points to consider in order to mitigate the disadvantages:
1. Write up a checklist and double check all items before you depart – It’s always a good idea to write down the most essential items for camping in the woods, and there’s nothing quite so deflating as arriving at your site missing an important item. Tent campers need a way of putting stakes in the ground without resorting to looking for a rock or other heavy object. You have to bring extra socks and underwear, basic non-perishable food items, complete array of tent components, and a minimal number of kitchen items for preparing food. Keeping the remainder of what you bring along to a minimum will be appreciated when you are preparing to pull up your stakes and head home.
2. Build your campsite as though it will rain every single day – There have been a number of occasions when the camping trip became an endurance run when it rained repeatedly during the trip. Once you have experienced a week of constant rain in the woods without preparation, you will probably never do it again. It is possible to still enjoy such a visit if you prepare in advance. Suspending either a large tarp or several smaller tarps in just the right way over your campsite can divert nearly all the rain away from your tent and provide a moisture free environment for sleeping regardless of how much it rains.
3. Prepare for contingency – There are a number of situations that can develop without much notice when you are sleeping outside in a tent or even in a small camper, and anticipating such events in advance can really save you from a disastrous result when they do occur. Sudden changes in the weather are chief among those which may pose both risks and discomforts while away from home and it has to be a priority to expect these events and prepare for them. Bringing along extra dry clothing in plastic bags or sealed in vacuum packs can save you from even the biggest deluge when it rains. No matter how diligent you might be otherwise in shielding yourself from the weather, having a definite resource of dry clothing available, if needed, can restore your well-being in an instant.
4. Practice putting up and tearing down your equipment before your trip – There’s nothing worse than having to learn how to set up or take down your equipment with a storm approaching or with the sunlight waning at the end of a day of traveling. Setting up a tent is a great deal easier these days with modern tents with shock cords and flexible structure components, but if you should find yourself in a pinch for time or approaching weather, knowing what to do in advance will help a great deal.
If you happen to arrive at your campsite when it’s raining, the best approach is either to wait for the rain to stop before you begin if possible, and if you can’t wait that long for some reason, putting up your tarps over the place where the tent will go first will make it much easier to keep it dry while you build it. Most modern camping equipment is possible to set up with one person, but if you have at least one extra set of hands it can be much faster. Having years of practice has made site construction a breeze in most cases in my experience, and there have been times when I observed other campers struggling to set up alone and offered to assist. To date, I have never been turned down even once.
5. Respect the rules and be considerate of your fellow campers – Each park or campground will have a general set of rules for campers to observe and as long as you don’t ignore them completely, you shouldn’t have much trouble with getting along with the staff or other visitors. Most of the time, the rules for behavior and observing quiet hours are reasonable and fair, and in my experience, only the most blatant offenders have been asked to leave. A brief chat with the park rangers or office staff can give you a good sense of how strictly they enforce such rules, and being polite costs you nothing. Most of the time, people who enjoy camping in the woods are considerate and friendly in the main and thankfully, there have only been a few exceptions of people being inconsiderate over the years. Respecting the privacy and personal space of other campers is a must, and generally, you are more likely to have privacy and to receive invitations to visit with others if you observe this basic rule.
Almost the whole point of camping in the woods, for me at least, is concluding the day sitting by a warm campfire. There’s no other time throughout the day when contemplation and reflection are more easily accomplished, and when I am attending to the fire, I feel a strong sense of connection to something much greater than myself. Caution and common sense are the keys to handling fire in the forest, and most campgrounds have strict limits on how to behave when you have a campfire.
6. Be prepared to extinguish the fire first! — Most of the time you won’t need to put out your fire quickly, but you should be ready to do so if it becomes necessary. Have a bucket or gallon jug of water at the ready nearby, and try to limit the size of the fire to one which won’t pose a challenge to extinguish.
7. Watch for flying embers landing near your tent! — Even a small ember ash landing on the fabric of your tent can be dangerous, not to mention potentially poking a hole in the fabric. Keep all other flammable objects, including your supply of wood, under a tarp or far enough away to avoid this issue.
8. Always use the fire ring or fire pit normally available, and as a last resort, if you are not in a designated camping area, digging a hole a few inches deep surrounded by rocks can provide a basic and safe platform.
“We dream all night of those mountain ridges in the horizon, though they may be vapor only, which were last gilded by (the sun’s) rays…A township where one primitive forest waves above while another primitive forest rots below–such a town is fitted to raise not only corn and potatoes, but poets and philosophers for the coming ages.” — Henry David Thoreau from his essay, “Walking,” 1862
—more to come—
August has nearly flown by this year, due in large part to the rapid pace of life these days for me, but also by virtue of the daunting blank page that has been staring back at me these past several months. There have been lots of ideas and thoughts and musings percolating in my heart and mind all the while, but for reasons that are difficult to explain, they haven’t been able to find their way to the blog lately, and it has been a bit gut-wrenching for someone more accustomed to having the words pour out like a flood over a broken levee.
The good news is that several of these ideas and musings are beginning to come forward, and I have begun to feel hopeful that the levee will soon overflow yet again. Chief among the reasons for this outlook is the scheduled actual vacation coming up next week. For reasons too numerous to mention, this will be the first real vacation that has been possible to schedule in years. It almost doesn’t seem real to me yet, and I doubt it will seem completely real to me before I actually find myself sitting by the campfire in woods near the border of West Virginia at a local Maryland state park. Those of you who have been following along here know well the restorative power the forest and lakes and natural settings have always had for me, and I fully intend to recruit people to pinch me periodically so I will be sure I am not dreaming.
I recently traveled to nearby West Virginia to visit my daughter and her family, who are still celebrating the recent arrival of their daughter, Autumn, who is my seventh grandchild, and there is a fair amount of inspiration contained in attending to the privilege of being a grandfather that has sparked some of the creative juices lately, and how could it be any other way?
My previous post to acknowledge my admiration for Dr. Oliver Sacks marked a moment of contemplation about all of the contributions he made to the understanding of the brain and consciousness and many other subjects, and I hope to contribute something a bit longer in the coming months to enlarge upon the one I posted today. There are a number of important contributions to be acknowledged in the scientific and philosophic realm these days, and I’m hoping to provide some insights that I’ve gleaned from these authors and scientists as they come up in the flow of my own research and reading.
Chief among them will be a tribute to one of my favorite authors from my younger days, Richard Brautigan, who wrote some very popular books back in the early to mid seventies, and whose influence is still being felt by those of us whose formative years included his unique viewpoint and provocative style. His life was extraordinary for a time, and there was a funny coincidence related to my writing inspirations as a young man that only recently came to light for me, and I’m looking forward to spending some time on my vacation rereading some of his work to spark the memories which surround this amazing time in my young life. Parts of the story of his rise to popularity, his astonishing good fortune in riding the wave of those times, and his eventual decline into near obscurity, are both inspiring and sad in some ways. It will be interesting to see how the piece turns out. So stay tuned!
I’m very much looking forward to seeing nine days worth of sunsets at the campground and reconnecting to the forest muse who nearly always joins me on these journeys. I will be reading and writing and relaxing and reconnecting in a beautiful natural setting in what Emerson described as “the plantations of God,” and I hope to bring back lots of material and insights to share with you all when I return.
Thanks for your continued patience and understanding as I work to get back to the flow!
Magritte – The Big Family
“I am part of the sun as my eye is part of me. That I am part of the earth my feet know perfectly, and by blood is part of the sea. My soul knows that I am part of the human race, my soul is an organic part of the great human race, as my spirit is part of my nation. In my very own self, I am part of my family.” – D.H. Lawrence, Apocalypse, 1931
A year ago this week, our family was participating in an around-the-clock vigil at home with our dear brother, who was slowly losing his grip on life due to cancer. It was naturally a difficult time in many ways, and we endured the difficult parts as best we could, while working very hard to make those days as comfortable as possible for him, and as comforting for each of us as we could. We looked for ways to brighten the room, to lift our brother’s spirits, and to keep love and joy at the forefront of every moment. We succeeded often, and even found hope in what we felt for certain were indications that our brother was still very much with us, even when he could no longer speak or even open his eyes.
Throughout our vigil, twice daily, hundreds of birds would perch on the trees outside his window, and chirp madly for a time. While he was still conscious, he loved to experience the clamor and chaos of those moments, and we found it comforting to anticipate their arrival each day, even after he seemed not to be able to notice. Shortly after enduring his last moments beside us, we all sat silently beside him as the birds arrived on queue to squire him away. It was a remarkable experience that felt like an indication of the presence of spirit.
“The quick of the universe is in our own bodies–deep in us. And as we see the universe, so it is. But also, it is much more than we ever see or can see. And as the soul changes in us–turns over with a new creative move–the whole aspect of things changes. And again we see the universe as it is. But it is not as we saw it before. It is an utterly new reality. We are clothed with a new awareness in a new world. The universe is all the things that man knows or has known or ever will know. It is all there. We only need become aware.”
– D.H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover
As the first anniversary of our vigil approaches, we have seen a repeat of the appearances of flocks of birds, and in these experiences we sense the presence of spirit in much the same way as we did a year ago. For my sister, it appeared as she awoke in the morning, to the sounds of innumerable birds chirping outside her window, which was opened to receive the benefit of the fresh, cool autumn air flowing in from outside. As she looked out on the scene, the birds took the opportunity to take flight as one group, and my sister was able to feel the whoosh of the air being pushed ahead of the massive momentary exodus, as it pressed against her face. For me, as I walked along the highway across from the local park, en-route to pick up what was once my brother’s vehicle from the repair shop down the street from me, my brother came immediately to mind as hundreds of birds took flight from the trees across the highway, diving and swooping in a rhythmic dance directly over my head for several minutes. I was absolutely stopped in my tracks, nearly hypnotized by the sight for several minutes. Then, all at once, they stopped and flew back into the trees across the way.
“The face is the mirror of the mind. In the human person, creation finds the intimacy it mutely craves. Within the mirror of the mind, it becomes possible for diffuse and endless nature to behold itself.” – John O’Donahue from “Anam Cara”
In my personal journal last year, I recorded this quote from my reading as I contemplated the circumstances of life at that time, and I remember well the feeling it gave me as I stepped out into the cool air, underneath blue skies, sipping on my morning coffee. I looked out at the trees, momentarily alone, pondering the sweetness of the day’s beginning, noticing the hints of color as autumn had only begun its rise to fullness. I was reminded at that time of many other moments of bliss experienced in the many natural settings of beauty in the wilderness while camping, where I “beheld creation,” and contemplated how the creation of human beings, and the subsequent development of conscious self-awareness in humans, may have been a way for a “creator” to experience his creation. What better way for a transcendent existence to cross over and “behold itself,” than to become manifest in a phenomenal existence–to create a tangible, observable, experiential place to “become,” and then to create a means of touching, observing, and experiencing that place. Once again at my brother’s side, I wrote:
“As I write, my brother sleeps peacefully beside me, and I monitor his shallow breathing with the football game on television playing unnoticed in the background. Our periodic conversations are warm and playful, and in particular moments, our happy sharing bursts into shared smiles. His medications sometimes seem to have a profound effect on his state of mind, but most of the time, he seems lucid and alert, only occasionally enduring bouts of minor confusion, as the tides of his wellness ebb and flow. My sense of the presence of his spirit never leaves me, even as his mind seems to drift away.”
Most remarkable of all is the development of a world only discernible within us–one that makes the ultimate use of the senses, impaired and imperfect though they may be, giving us important information to use in reflection. Our ability to interpret the phenomenal world through our senses is a platform from which we can build our path through life, and form a vision of that world. Our senses tell us a great deal, but everything that exists may not be apprehended through them alone. Beyond the physical world, there is much as yet unknown, and all our attempts to articulate a transcendent portion to reality still escapes our grasp, but our awareness of the transcendent, particularly when it seems to present itself so unambiguously, may only be possible to experience subjectively, and our subjective awareness only one component in the equation of eternity.
This week at the memorial for my brother, I will read these words:”
The fish in the water is silent,
the animal on the earth is noisy,
the bird in the air is singing,
But Man has in him the silence of the sea,
the noise of the earth
and the music of the air.
– excerpt from “Stray Birds,” by Rabindranath Tagore
It was early morning on the last day of summer vacation in the mountains, and I rose early to take in the sunrise on the river. Having spent the last few days constructing a raft, as I had learned to do from one older and wiser, I felt confident that I could navigate the lazy waters of the nearby river. A soft breeze floated gently through the trees, still lush and green with no sign of autumn’s turning tide. The tiny black silhouettes of hundreds of birds against the orange and pink hue of early morning dotted the sky like stars at night.
As the morning progressed, the sun rose higher over the water, emitting warmth to the cold dark river. There was a profound silence at most every moment, with the exception of the usual background murmur of nature, which I had come to accept as silence. As I drifted along in that almost utter silence of nature, my mind drifted into reverie, feeling like an invisible man, in a hidden cove, out of sight and mind, totally alone. Far in the distance, I could hear the barely audible sounds of tumbling thunder, rolling along the sky like the vibrations from a desert tumbleweed against the parched earth.
As I made my way further along the shapeless snake of the river’s edge, my reverie became a sudden slap in the face as the water began to swirl and crash all around me. While enraptured by my conjured, boastful bliss, the forces within the water had built up around me, and my tiny raft began to creak and pop under the pressure of the angry river.
I had all I could do to prevent myself from being tossed over into the roaring mass, which had now grabbed my craft and was throwing it about violently without discretion. I could feel my heart pounding rapidly against my chest, and the grasp I had on my normal calm began to resemble my tenuous grasp on my float. Putting my life in the hands of the river’s raging waters now felt like a consequence of an insult to the power of nature itself, for which I now would answer. My fate was suddenly at the mercy of an uncaring, unfeeling, inhuman mass of water. As the pace quickened, my mind was working furiously for a way out.
In the midst of my panic, descending like a gift from heaven, a long overhanging branch appeared directly on my path ahead–a path which now clearly was leading toward an abrupt change in altitude at the edge of an unexpected waterfall. I would only have one very brief opportunity to grab on to it, because once I let go of the raft, there would be no where else to go. My breathing was rapid and frantic. My mind was racing in its calculating of the trajectory and timing, until finally, with a true leap of faith, I flung myself upward as I grasped for the life-saver.
I felt my hands clasp desperately on the wood of the tree’s extension, as I watched the last few moments of horizontal travel by my raft before it plummeted over the falls.
Reluctant at first to move, I could feel my stomach slowly begin to relax, and I let out a long, low whistle. I gradually found the strength to navigate to the bottom of the tree, and when I set foot once again on solid ground, I laid down on the grassy mound near the water’s edge with my eyes closed and my heart open. The phenomenal world seemed to evaporate into a wisp of remembered steam floating aimlessly away from my awareness.
Standing at last, trudging along the path back to the campsite, I cast myself with reckless abandon into the uncertainty of what might yet be, and wondered… Why I felt I must do it again……
The Mountain laurel is a member of the heath family (Ericaceae). This family of plants contains many of our most common and best-known shrubs including huckleberries, blueberries, azaleas, cranberries and rhododendron. – Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources
Treading a path last month in the hills of Belle Plain State Forest, I encountered this delightful view of the Mountain Laurel, which appeared in sporadic bunches and clumps along the trail. Some of the plants were quite large, but this lone branch hung out in front of my path, and caught me at eye level, providing the opportunity for a closer look. The typical time period for observing these sweetly scented pink and white blossoms spans from about the middle of May and sometimes through much of June. They herald the fullness of spring and announce the arrival of summer most times, and are quickly gone.
For anyone unfamiliar with the pleasures of camping in the woods, the idea of spending time sleeping in a tent, cooking all your meals outdoors, and coping with the circumstances surrounding life in the natural world for a period of time longer than a walk in the park, the concept of such an adventure may seem unappealing at first glance. There is a fair amount of preparation that needs to be considered like the details of exactly where to go and how to arrange to stay at a campground, and if you haven’t ever been camping, there are some essential pieces of equipment that you need to acquire in order to conduct your daily routines of eating and sleeping and preparing for inconvenient weather, but most of the essentials really aren’t that expensive, and you can either rent the bigger items or borrow them from someone who DOES like camping and probably has them all. It’s an individual matter how you get there, but if you’re really not sure if you will want to do it more than once, it’s best to either rent or borrow the essentials, and maybe purchase a few of the smaller items which you could easily sell or give away to someone who you know enjoys camping.
Our family has been camping for many years now, and most of the time we enjoy it enormously. We’ve gotten pretty good at all the routines of setting up camp, knowing what to bring, packing the food, knowing which supplies can be acquired locally and which items you are better off leaving home. All it takes is preparing well, anticipating contingencies, and common sense. We have some favorite parts of camping down to a science now, but the learning has been fun too. Once you forget to bring something important, or fail to check the weather report, or bash you finger trying to break a tree limb with your bare hands, you generally don’t repeat those kinds of mistakes. And every once in a while, you meet up with a fellow camper who has figured out how to do something easier than the way YOU do it, and can learn from seeing what other campers do just by observation.
Many of the campgrounds are located in some of the most scenic and beautiful natural landscapes in the area where they are found. Tranquil scenes such as these are delightfully common. Spending time outdoors can be challenging at first, but once you have spent time in the natural beauty of remote areas, it’s easy to see why so many people do this.
For me, one of the most thoroughly pleasurable experiences of camping is enjoying the campfire in the evening. Few other moments of outdoor recreation rise to the level of enjoyment as sitting comfortably by the fire YOU have built after a long day of activity. It’s almost the whole point of camping in my view.
Constructing a campfire that is both pleasing and safe takes some practice, but it is possible, with the right preparation, to get it going and sustain it for hours if you apply a few simple techniques:
1) If possible, you should arrange to bring at least some firewood with you, or stop along the way to pick some up from locals who often have wood out for sale. Paying a few dollars per bundle is an inexpensive way to have a supply handy, and eliminates the need to find it later.
2) Keeping the wood you bring with you in your vehicle is generally a good idea, as wet wood can be a challenge to ignite if you happen to encounter a rogue storm or sudden downpour. If you are confident in the weather forecast for sunny skies, you can leave it out, or as an alternate strategy, cover it up with a plastic tarp just in case.
3) Most often, campgrounds will allow you to pick up the dead branches and sticks that are already on the ground for burning at your campsite, since this reduces the fuel for wildfires, but it’s best to check with the park ranger’s office or the rules for each campground which do vary.
4) Assuming it is permitted, you should start gathering this smaller wood supply in the afternoon, before it gets too dark in the evening. Keep in mind that you will need some small, thin branches as well as more substantial sized limbs to support the fire beneath your chopped logs you bring with you.
5) It’s probably a good idea to pick up a few of those “fire starter bricks” that you see in the stores in case the wood is damp, or not plentiful in the campground. They can supplement your small branches and sticks in keeping the flame alive while the bigger pieces of wood get started. We also like to hang on to our paper plates, paper towels, and cardboard packaging like cereal boxes, as these can also help to kindle a flame when first getting the fire going.
6) I usually start by placing either a half of a fire starter brick in the bottom of the fire pit, or some items of paper or cardboard trash underneath a small bed of sticks and thin branches as the “bed” for the larger pieces. A few medium sized limb chunks go on top of that, and maybe one or two large logs on top, before striking a match or better yet, flicking on one of those long handle lighters to get things moving.
7) Once the flames start lapping up the pyramid of sticks you have built, you may need to fan the flames a bit with a paper plate or piece of cardboard to stoke the flames enough to ignite the larger pieces.
8) Once you get the fire started, check to make sure you have good air flow around the larger pieces of wood, as this ensures an even burning of your fuel supply. Many times, campers see a lot of smoke or lose momentum in their fire due to improper stacking of the pieces to allow air to flow around them.
9) It’s always important to have someone tending to the fire at all times, or to at least be present at the campsite, in case embers escape from the main fire pit. Never leave a fire unattended, particularly when there are young children around. It’s also a good idea to have a jug of water handy or some way to dampen the fire should it be necessary. Careful attention to the fire is essential no matter what the conditions are in the surrounding area, and containment is the key.
Once you have enjoyed the warm glow of a campfire at the end of a long day, or spent some time in conversation around one, you will no doubt wish to return again to this ritual many times. Before you settle in to your tent at night, you should always pour some water on the bed of hot embers to ensure that it stays dampened while you sleep. Safety for yourself and your fellow campers is a must!
Max Planck Florida Institute Study Shows: Persistent Sensory Experience Is Good For The Aging Brain Jupiter, FL May 24, 2012
“Despite a long-held scientific belief that much of the wiring of the brain is fixed by the time of adolescence, a new study shows that changes in sensory experience can cause massive rewiring of the brain, even as one ages. In addition, the study found that this rewiring involves fibers that supply the primary input to the cerebral cortex, the part of the brain that is responsible for sensory perception, motor control and cognition. These findings promise to open new avenues of research on brain remodeling and aging.”
Published in the May 24, 2012 issue of Neuron, the study was conducted by researchers at the Max Planck Florida Institute (MPFI) and at Columbia University in New York.
“This study overturns decades-old beliefs that most of the brain is hard-wired before a critical period that ends when one is a young adult,” said MPFI neuroscientist Marcel Oberlaender, PhD, first author on the paper. “By changing the nature of sensory experience, we were able to demonstrate that the brain can rewire, even at an advanced age. This may suggest that if one stops learning and experiencing new things as one ages, a substantial amount of connections within the brain may be lost.”
Consciousness is not only about interpreting the world around us and organizing all the data and stimulus we receive through our senses. Experience, while vitally dependent on cognition and our central nervous system, is not simply and only a phenomenon of the intellect and the body. Our biological organs and systems support our existence and are each dependent on the other. When all systems are nominally balanced there is harmony. Our brain and nervous system provide a platform for our intellectual powers and organize the relentless stream of data received from our environment.
“In the woods, a man casts off his years, and at whatsoever period of life is always a child…In these plantations of God…a perennial festival is dressed, and the visitor sees not how he could tire of it in a thousand years.” –Emerson in “Nature.”
This excerpt from Emerson struck me upon first reading as precisely my own sentiment regarding the “experience” of being in the forest while camping. Simply visiting the woods on a particular day would be uplifting in its own way, and one could get a sense of what Emerson was describing, but staying in the woods for days at a time, experiencing everything from daybreak to nightfall, participating at every moment in the daily rituals of our lives outdoors, one begins to actually “dwell” in the plantation, and a richer understanding of Emerson’s words begin to unfold.
My own interests in camping for days at a time cover everything from a temporary escape from the trials of everyday life to the pleasure provided by the natural settings, to the solace and quiet of remote areas which are absent the noise and traffic of modern living. I often spend time in contemplation of the sunrise, (a particularly sought after experience) where the stillness of early morning is so soothing as to be a sedative of the most pleasant sort, and the gradual brightening of the sky awakens and stirs the forest creatures to their daily routines almost imperceptibly increasing as the sun ascends.
Behind the tent is a sunlit path leading through a brilliant array of greenery which is immensely inviting. A nearly cloudless blue sky, dotted with an occasional floating cloud brings the day to life in a most satisfying way. Having arranged in advance for a visit which happened to coincide with a period of moderate temperatures and congenial weather, increases the pleasure ten-fold, as experience has taught me, that the adjustments for inclement weather, while necessary and appealing in their own way, alter the experience by occupying my attention and time, which I would prefer to spend reading, or writing, or just walking along a trail, or paddling in a canoe.
But beyond even these temporal concerns, with all conditions being optimal, my focus almost always ends up turning within, and from dawn to dusk, my heart and mind embrace the awareness of the natural beauty and inherent pleasure of communing directly with the natural world, unmitigated by the trappings of civilization to which we have grown accustomed, and in a way that is far easier and agreeable than it is during the course of everyday life in the modern world.
By far though, is the appeal of preparing and tending to the campfire each night, which may include gathering and chopping of the wood for consumption in that evening period, as well as the many adjustments to the supply as the night progresses. After many years of practice, I have managed to accomplish these tasks with minimal effort and attention needed to sustain the flames, which provides the maximum enjoyment of the experience, as well as ample opportunity for contemplation. I often find myself reluctant to relinquish this portion of the experience as it provides much of the solace from the concerns which normally occupy my travels. In a way, the fire evokes a fundamental connection to the ineffable which escapes me many times otherwise, and immediately upon recognition of my arrival at the doorsteps of my inner world, I feel a sense of fulfillment and reconnection to the vastness of the world of contemplation, made possible by an unrestricted pathway to the invisible. Watching the fire dance and swirl, smoke rising swiftly, illuminating the surrounding area with fluctuating shadows from the flames, the aroma of burnt timbers mingles with my thoughts as I drift into reverie.
Increased stimulation of our sensory experience now appears to be essential to our continued growth and to the expansion of our evolving consciousness as a species. We cannot stop learning and experiencing new things and must continue to challenge ourselves by seeking out different environments and opportunities to expand our awareness. As the foundation for our awareness of possessing consciousness, neurological functioning may facilitate its unfolding, allowing it to become manifest in the physical universe of human endeavor, and provide a common platform for meaningful interaction amongst our fellow cognitive creatures, but it cannot constitute the whole of it.
Simply taking a slow, deep breath out in the woods in the Adirondack region of New York State is so near to a transcendent experience by itself that whenever I arrive there I feel confident in my ability to achieve an even more intense transcendent state with some effort and focus. When I was a young boy our family often visited the area in the late summer, and the appeal of the Adirondacks was very nearly mystical in my mind even then, although I clearly lacked a context within which I could describe it to myself in those terms. The sense of a divine nature to the natural setting, which I understood at the time as “being close to God,” now resonates in the same way, but with a much clearer adult context more than forty years later.
The ineffable nature of the subjective experience of consciousness, that richly-textured awareness of being, is so vividly present at such moments, that even as I experience my own personal consciousness in this extraordinary setting, I can barely contain myself to attempt to express it in words. As most people experience it, consciousness is mostly taken for granted, and contemplating its complexities and subtleties is hardly a concern, if ever. And yet, for me, the subject beckons me to explore it with such power, that whenever I am presented with the opportunity, my inclination is to spend every available moment in contemplation of its intricate nature and far-reaching implications.
Preparing to meet with the darkness at the campsite, as the light of day slowly recedes into the gentle evening air, I sit recording my thoughts on my laptop, almost imperceptibly sliding into a comfortable degree of both melancholy and relief, deep in the burrow of the pine forest, under the canopy of what Emerson described as the “plantations of God.” Already fully prepared to begin, I set the flames of the evening campfire in motion, parked my chair agreeably close to the fire, and settled in to release whatever might escape from within me.
For me, experiencing the campfire is almost the whole point of camping in the first place. I keep thinking of my ancient ancestors from the earliest days of human awareness, filled as I am in my time, with a sense of wonder and oneness with the natural world. While gazing intently into the fire, I seem to gaze beyond the present moment, across the eons of time to share the moment with them. Surely, some of the first truly important moments of conscious awareness in humans included such moments by the fire, even if the intention was to stay warm or to gain a sense of safety from night predators.
The waves of heat seen rippling through the white-hot embers at the core of the fire, and the fluid motion of the flames lapping along the edges of the arrangement of logs, evoked for me a heightened sense of the flow of the unseen which I felt all around me, and of which we generally only become aware through moments of transcendent awareness. Surrendering to the moment, I began to view the fire as a good metaphor for temporal life. The energy that is released as the wood burns is the energy of life, and as the wood is consumed by the fire, so too does life consume the body, though as it burns, it releases the most brilliant light.
For many of us, moments of transcendence are only possible to experience fleetingly. Flashes of insight, simultaneous thoughts occurring between two or more individuals, sudden awareness of impending danger, (most often followed by an instinctual decision to meet it head on or to avoid collision with it) empathy with a complete stranger, visions, hunches, and even hopes, all hint at our connection to something much greater than ourselves that also feels essential to our nature as living, sentient beings. The more we open ourselves to these moments–deliberately placing ourselves in the path of transcendence–the closer we come to perceiving our connection to the wider world of the spirit that animates us.
During one of my most recent journeys into the deep forest, I inadvertently left one of my books out at the campsite during the day and when I returned that evening, I realized that it must have rained in my absence and suddenly my concern for the transcendent was briefly interrupted by a fairly mundane temporal concern–drying out my reading material! It’s always good to be reminded, even in the deep forest, that we are also made of flesh and blood, and exist in the physical universe!